Divers everywhere know about this archipelago in the remote western Pacific. You’ll love it, too, if you’re a snorkeler, kayaker, bird-watcher, beach-sitter, pursuer of history ancient and modern, or hammock-lazer. And it’s pretty good if you just want to be a coconut-head.
The idea was to look for dugong, but the real prize was a singularly glorious Pacific morning. Before dawn we had slid the kayaks into the water, and paddled around the island and out over the barrier reef. This prospect had kept me miserably awake most of the night—The surf will tear me to shreds on the coral!—but actually only a few small waves plopped peaceably over my bow.
As we paddled north, the rising sun tinted all the little clouds the color of mangos. We were in the open Pacific now, which was living up to its name admirably. The seas were flat. And vast. It occurred to me that other than a few small islands, the nearest land mass straight east was South America, almost a hemisphere away.
Our local kayaking guide, Eric Carlson, led us into the Malakal Channel. The shallows beneath us were thick with waving sea grasses, prime feeding for dugong, the shy and rare sea cow of Micronesia. We drifted for a while, searching the waters. Nothing. We paddled a bit.
Then, a few yards off our bows, a dugong surfaced, eyed us, blew, rolled easily away.
In the old days, the sweet-mannered dugong was much revered by the Palauans, and invested with myth and ritual. The chiefs wore a bracelet of dugong vertebra, so small that the chief’s hand had to be crushed for it to fit. Today, like many other endangered species, the dugong is hunted for its meat and rumored aphrodisiac qualities. Fewer than 200 survive in Palau.
The dugong surfaced a few more times, then vanished. Beyond was Koror, its buildings lit by the early sun. It made a soft roaring noise, the sound of a tropical town awakening, a collective of everything that children and rusty motors and dogs and roosters do as dawn turns into morning.
We turned and paddled south, toward the Rock Islands, a busy day ahead.
It’s a long way to Palau, which lies some 400 miles east of the Philippines, in the Western Carolines of Micronesia, those "tiny islands" scattered over thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean just north of the equator. Palau has long been legendary among scuba divers. Its waters harbor marine species in the world’s greatest number and variety—1,300 species of fish, more than 700 species of soft and hard corals, as well as pelagic fishes, great whales, green sea turtles, diverse invertebrates. The archipelago of Palau, about 125 miles long, contains something like 300-400 volcanic and limestone islands and atolls (the number varies depending on how big a rock has to be to count as an island).
The most spectacular of these are the Rock Islands, a maze of maybe 200 islands and islets dotting a 23-mile-long pale blue lagoon. Formed from upthrust ancient coral reefs, they have been worked by wind and wave and rain and burrowing mollusks into fantastic honeycombed shapes, and crowned with luxuriant rainforest. They look like green gumdrops tossed on a tray of blue glass.
The Rock Islands, unique on the planet, are the major draw in Palau. Every day boats speed away from the marinas and resorts, delivering divers to coral reefs and shallow lagoons, blue holes, tunnels, caves, thousand-foot undersea drop-offs, and landlocked marine lakes full of creatures weird and wondrous.
In recent years, more and more visitors have come to Palau for other pursuits. The reefs and lagoons are terrific for snorkeling. Several kayaking outfits have sprung up (the sissy sit-on-top kayaks, easy for beginners).
Take care though, to respect this sensitive environment. Even the coral is a living animal that can be greatly damaged by human touch.
Palau’s dripping rainforests are the dominion of exquisite birds, including eight species found nowhere else. They also shelter rusting relics of World War II, and remnants of the prehistoric peoples who settled here as early as 1,000 B.C.
"Coconut-head!" called a snorkel-buddy when she noticed I’d been lying mask-down in the water for half an hour without moving. Hey, I was busy, watching this tiny neon-blue fish darting around its foot-wide patch of coral on the sea floor below.
It’s a pleasant task, becoming a coconut-head in Palau. You wake to the calls of doves, laze around on boats bobbing on sparkling waters, dine beneath the moonlit palms. You can float for hours, hypnotized by the easy sway of the water, the fractured sunlight, watching the shimmering paintbox fishes flickering through the coral. And yet, you return home greatly enriched, your mind imprinted with experiences and sights that stay with you for years.
Take Jellyfish Lake, one of dozens of landlocked marine ponds created when the Rock Islands rose from the sea, and made famous by television documentaries. Living in the lake are millions of jellyfish. Over the eons, they have evolved into a stingless species—raising their own food by farming algae in their bodies. During the day they migrate across the lake, chasing the sun; they spend the night in the poisonous, nitrogen-rich lake depths.
To get there, we tied our boats to the trees, and scrambled up through the forest, pulling on roots and vines, slipping on rocks, careful to avoid the "poison tree," which can raise a wretched skin rash. We crossed the knife-edged ridge, lowered ourselves to the lake shore, and, with masks and snorkels, swam out through the mangroves.
At first we couldn’t see anything but roots, white anemones, and a few cardinal fish. Toward the center of the lake, the water turned an opaque apple-green. A peach-colored jellyfish went pulsing by. Then another. Then hundreds. Occasionally a large, diaphanous moon jelly danced along like a twirling parasol. The only sound was the melodious tune of the Palauan bush warbler in the trees above.
We swam through caressing clouds of jellyfish for almost an hour. What is there to say about them? If they could feel fear, they should worry about too many tourists coming. The jellyfish look like they should go "bloop, bloop, bloop," but really, they don’t make any noise at all.
These marine lakes of the Rock Islands are fascinating to divers, snorkelers, and marine biologists. Only a few are so cut off from the sea that unique species have evolved within. Others, reached through channels, arches, and dark underwater tunnels (I could never summon the nerve for these last), are full of marvelous corals and fishes—and an occasional saltwater crocodile.
This tropical paradise is not without a few meanies to sidestep: stonefish, stinging corals, deadly cone shells, bot flies, poison trees, and big fish with teeth. Encounters with these can lead to character-building incidents. One night in a kayak camp, I wandered away from my bedroll and stumbled into a spider Web that wouldn’t let go; the strand felt like strong twine. Later I read that the dragline silk of Palau’s golden orb-Web spider is the strongest natural fiber known.
One afternoon I was snorkeling along the Ngemelis Wall, also known as the "Big Drop-off," where the water is knee-deep on the reef, then plummets straight down almost 1,000 feet into dark oblivion. Feeling very small, suspended in an enormous place, I cruised along, admiring the wildly prolific marine life of the wall—browsing sea turtles, huge table corals, purple gorgonians, clownfish peering from the folds of giant anemones.
A frisson of animal fear made me look over my shoulder. There, out in the deep, hung a shark. Those pale dumb eyes! I moved closer to the reef, toward the froth of breaking waves. Dark shapes lurked in the turbulent bubbles. More sharks, smaller ones. None of them seemed interested in me as a morsel, but that didn’t deter me— within seconds I was in the boat.
Each day we explored the Rock Islands by motorboat or kayak—dropping into the water to snorkel the coral gardens or peer at giant clams, which can grow to more than four feet long and have mantles flecked with brilliant blues and greens. In one cove called The Milky Way the water is a powdery blue emulsion of superfine bottom sand. Dip up some of this and voilà! Instant facial!
Once, we played "reef cowboys," jumping off the tour boat and letting a fast current sweep us above a long coral wall, to a pickup a couple of miles farther on. We poked around numerous caves—caves with bats, or stalactites, or Japanese gun mounts, or bones of the early peoples.
In the kayaks, we paddled along the limestone cliffs, seeking out petroglyphs and watching for the green flash of the biib, or Palauan dove. I sighted several other endemic birds—the fantail, flycatcher, and fruit dove—and heard the soft call of the Palauan owl above our camp at midnight. There were noddy terns, mannikins, reef herons. In the mornings we watched the flying foxes come in to roost, the sun shining through their thin wing membranes.
One morning we went south to Peleliu, where the big war battles were fought, and the surf ran red with blood, and where the U.S. Navy Seabees still maintain a memorial. In Koror, the capital town, there are shops, good restaurants (I particularly liked the Fuji), karaoke bars, and a fine little museum of Palauan natural and human history. On the museum grounds is a replica of a bai, or men’s meeting house. We also visited the Palau jail, where a shop sells storyboards — local wood carvings— made by inmates.
It was nice, too, to do some power lounging at the Palau Pacific resort, with its lavish gardens, hammocks, sandy beach, good offshore snorkeling, open-air dining room.
It’s not easy to get to Palau—the flights are long and uncomfortable, and Palau has a few of the usual exasperations of third world travel. (The airport is bleak and steamy, the bridge is out, the taxi never comes, people drive maddeningly slowly.)
But if you know you would love clear tropical waters teeming with marine life of stunning beauty, rarity, and complexity, and rainforests ringing with the songs of strange and lovely birds, and a lively island culture, Palau is worth the journey from just about anywhere.
The Republic of Palau
is a young country of some 16,000 souls. In 1994 it became an independent nation after a gradual and convoluted withdrawal from administration as a U.S. Trust Territory. Its history also includes occupation by the Japanese, Germans, and Spanish, and extensive trade with the British.
During the war, Palau was a major staging area for the Japanese, and in 1944 was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theater. Today the jungle is full of camp ruins and decaying jeeps, tanks, big guns, and downed planes. About 20 percent of the 60,000 annual tourists in Palau are Americans—the rest are from Japan and other Asian countries. Official languages are English and Palauan. Currency is the U.S. dollar.
Photography courtesy of Dr. James P. McVey/NOAA Sea Grant Program/Wikipedia
This article was first published in January 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.